books, fiction

Short story review: The Wolf

The Listener

(Tove Jansson, [1971] 2014, London, Sort Of Books)

Strangely, I was just talking about my two Japanese friends I met a few years ago when I turned to the next story in The Listener by Tove Jansson called ‘The Wolf’, about a female writer who is hosting a visit from a Japanese artist and his translator. This is my favourite story in the collection so far and if I come across another one that’s better, I’ll let you know.

I’ve never much considered the impact of reading fiction in translation, how stories may have been rewritten to make them fit in English, and I think the element of translation from Swedish to English may have enhanced the strangeness, the foreignness of this story, heightening my enjoyment of it. Jansson uses the politeness of the Japanese guests, the insecurity of the writer hosting them and the cold wintry backdrop of southern Finland to produce an unsettling comparison between wildness and domesticity, brutality and sensitivity, art and life. The female character, the writer, translates her own language into English (‘suddenly she couldn’t remember the English word for wolf’) to speak through the Japanese translator, and her initial misunderstanding of Mr Shimomura’s work as an illustrator and not an author sets up an unsettling atmosphere.

Right at the beginning of the story there is awkwardness and strangeness: the ‘far too long’ silence, the need to speak to ‘save them for several more minutes’ of silence. The sense of wanting, needing something to happen is the essence of the short story, the desire of the reader. The characters’ physical differences are revealed through the female character’s opinion of the Japanese artist’s ‘tiny, beautiful paws’; she herself ‘felt like a large horse’. She equates the beauty of art to the hands that create it, but feels awkward and shy of her own power as a writer. The interpreter tells her, ‘Mr Shimomura thinks that you write beautifully’ so despite her insecurity, the reader understands this is a meeting between two artists, possibly ‘looking for the same thing’.

Further comparisons emerge when they come into contact with animals, dead and displayed indoors (the elephant skull ‘without its trunk and its tusks’ has a ‘resigned, all too human face’ in its naked state), then alive and displayed in cages outside. There are feelings of confinement, restlessness and despair throughout the story. The wolves in their cages ‘ceaselessly’ pace in ‘appalling’ timelessness. The snow leopard ‘looked past her, uninterested’. The polar bear is like ‘a sleepy person getting out of bed’, and stares ‘down at the snow between its paws’. The female character admits she has ‘no right to be there’, just as the animals on the island have no right to be there.

Twice we are told the artist captures wildness through brutal, sensitive drawings. The desire for the quiet, Japanese artist to see ‘[v]ery savage’ animals made me think of how people may crave the wildness inside, despite our civilised, composed exterior: the contrast between brutality and sensitivity. The closing paragraphs of the story beautifully reflect how art and life work together to fulfil our desires: the artist’s brutal, sensitive drawing of a wolf would be ‘the most living, breathing wolf that had ever been drawn’, but would it be of ‘[t]he one he saw or the one he imagines’? This contrast between reality and imagination reflects our desire to see dangerous, wild animals, but it is a desire that must be fulfilled in a safe, confined environment, so we can only imagine what wildness, danger and savagery look like. The strangeness between the characters, my feelings as a reader of translated fiction and the world created by Jansson is alluring and captivating; the differences highlighted in ‘The Wolf’ reveal the connection between the human desire for truth and our animal instinct for freedom.

The Listener is a wonderful collection, much of it surreal and essentially plotless, which I tend to like. I’m working on an online writing course just now and a lot of focus goes on plot, but I enjoy writing scenes the reader can become enveloped in, so they can draw their own conclusions if they want to.

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